Conflict in Volunteerism: Part 3

We’ve made it!  This is the last in a series of posts about conflicts among volunteers.  I’m excited to get this post published before the start of DOVIA Colorado’s Conference on Volunteerism tomorrow.  In the previous posts we’ve looked at common sources of conflict for volunteers who are Helpers for a Day, Sustaining Supporters, (Part 1) and Would-Be-Staff (Part 2).  Today, we’ll tackle volunteers who provide “Organizational Oversight” and explore both the roots and possible solutions for conflict with these types of volunteers.

Type Four: Organizational Oversight

Put simply, this final type of volunteer includes your Board of Directors (BOD) and any oversight, advisory, or steering committees.  While equally critical for your organization, this type of volunteer looks and acts very different from your Helpers for a Day or Sustaining Supporters.  While it’s not uncommon to recruit new members of your BOD from the ranks of other volunteers, the task and responsibility of providing strategic direction and oversight is entirely different. Volunteers who provide Organizational Oversight are still volunteers but in this case, they hold power over staff and over the organization as a whole that other volunteers do not.

Organizational Oversight volunteers have legal responsibility for sound governance and fiscal management of the organization.   These volunteers are called on to make difficult decisions including the hiring, supervision of, and firing of Executive Directors.  Furthermore, this group establishes organizational priorities and supports/supervises the Executive Director in operationalizing these plans. Finally, these volunteers are often called upon to financially support the organization either through their own financial contributions or by making connections and requests from other donors.

Given these distinct tasks, conflict among volunteers of this type are unique.  In my work I see two main types of conflict in this group.  Let’s explore each one separately.

Conflict between the Board of Directors and the Executive Director

As the supervisors of the Executive Director (ED), Organizational Oversight volunteers have all the challenges of any other boss.  From the selection of this employee to ongoing feedback, formal performance reviews, and, if necessary, dismissal of the ED, the BOD has a tremendous and challenging responsibility.  Depending on their experience, these volunteers may not be skilled or comfortable in delivering constructive feedback.  Other times, these volunteers may feel badly about the ED’s salary or working conditions (compensation for many ED’s is below what they could make in for-profit industries) so the BOD may be reluctant to give negative feedback at all.

entrepreneur-998735_640In addition, a BOD is made up of multiple individuals who may or may not act as one body.  Clear communication between one supervisor and his/her employee is challenging on its own; with a BOD you may have 3-20 different supervisors all overseeing that same single employee. For an ED, keeping all of these different individuals satisfied can be a challenging task.  If roles and priorities aren’t clear, it gets even worse.

In some cases, Board members may overstep the ED and get involved in the operations side of the organization, direct other staff’s work, and more.  While well intentioned, these acts can create confusion and discord.  Staff are likely to respond to a Board member’s requests but this may undermine the ED and his/her instructions to staff.  Getting too tied up in the day-to-day operations can also distract Board members from their main responsibilities, providing oversight on a broad, strategic, and governance level.

When organizations are growing (particularly between stages three and four of nonprofit development), it’s not uncommon for the BOD to be acting as Would-Be-Staff.  In these cases, individuals are both supervised by the ED (as volunteers for the organization) and supervising the ED (from the BOD perspective).  With clear distinction between these roles and agreed upon priorities, this doesn’t necessarily cause problems.  That said, if one of these individuals has different ideas, these power differences can make it difficult to provide feedback or request changes.  See Conflict in Volunteerism: Part 2 for more ideas on this type of conflict.

Internal conflict between other members of the BOD or committee

Beyond the conflict between Board members and the ED, Board members are likely to experience conflict between themselves.  From small issues like showing up on time and prepared for meetings to large issues like different priorities for the organization, opportunities for disagreements abound.  In most cases, these individuals share in their enthusiasm for the organization’s mission but they often have different personalities, skills, and ideas of how to best achieve that mission. While board diversity is a key asset to the organization’s success, it may also present challenges that require thoughtful management.

For other volunteers, hierarchy exists that can help support conflict resolution.  If two “Helper for a Day” or “Sustaining Supporter” volunteers disagree and aren’t able to work things out themselves, they can turn to a volunteer coordinator or other staff for support.  Similarly, “Would be Staff” can turn to the Executive Director or even a member of the BOD when problems come up.  In each of these cases, volunteers in conflict have supports readily available.  For conflict between Organizational Oversight volunteers, this may not be the case.  They say it’s lonely at the top, in part, perhaps, because there’s nowhere else to turn for help.  Board members may not want to turn to the ED to resolve conflict between one another. An “Executive Committee” may help for larger boards but even then, individuals may not be n agreement.  Without a “higher power” to decide on tough issues, many conflicts go undressed.

So what’s a BOD or ED to do?  What strategies are effective to both prevent and mange conflict with Organizational Oversight volunteers?

Solution Thinking

Clearly, the complexities of conflict with this last type of volunteer make them challenging to manage.  That said, it can be done! The following list of strategies and solutions can help.

  1. Provide targeted and regular board training– Given the complexities of the responsibilities for Board members, ongoing training is a must.  From a basic orientation of what it means to be on a board to targeted skill development, board members have much to learn.  As a BOD, work with your ED to identify areas of need and map out a plan to gain new skills.
  2. Normalize and systematize feedback– Create scheduled opportunities for evaluation and feedback.  Take the guessing out of it by first identifying priorities and measures of progress on those priorities. If everyone knows what’s expected, it gives them a better chance of succeeding.  When it comes time to reflect on progress, be honest!  Having measurable outcomes can help give an objectipersonal-1264695_640ve view of progress and depersonalize the conversation.
  3. Clarify roles and decision-making rules– I sound like a broken record here but this is so important!  Clarify roles between board members themselves and between the BOD and ED/staff.  Write down specific areas of responsibility and authority.  Revisit these yearly (if not more often) to see how well you’re following them and make revisions if necessary.
  4. Bring in help when you need it– Particularly because there aren’t internal people who can help with these cases, outside help can be critically important.  Consider the various nonprofit resources available to you.  Make friends  with others who serve on different Boards or work in different organizations and develop a mentoring relationship with them.  Establishing many of the strategies on this list may go better if you use an outside facilitator or mediator.  We hear that Carrie Bennett, of Learning Through Difference, LLC, ahem…is very skilled and would love to work with you.  🙂
  5. Focus on the mission– As stated before, keeping a big picture perspective about what you’re trying to accomplish can make a huge difference.  Keep the mantra, “If we’re trying to accomplish X, what are possible ways that we can get there?”  Admittedly, just defining an organization’s mission and the key priorities to meet it can be a huge challenge of its own.  Strategic planning is fraught with difficulty because it IS difficult work.  As stated in #4, bring in outside help when you need it.  The cost to having a facilitator or mediator support you will be far less than the cost to the organization if people tear one another apart or stay locked in stalemate.
  6. Stick with it– The challenges that many nonprofits face are difficult!  If the work were easy, it would have been done by now.  Don’t lose sight of the fact that your work matters and that YOU play a critical role in making it happen.  Be resourceful.  Breathe deeply, consider your challenges from fresh perspectives, don’t be afraid to ask for help.

Tomorrow I’m off to the DOVIA Colorado’s Conference on Volunteerism for a keynote and workshop.  I’m excited to explore conflict with all four types of volunteers with the attendees.  Stay tuned to find out what I learned with them (I’m sure there will be plenty!!) and fresh ideas about managing conflict in nonprofit settings.

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